May 4th History Symposium re-examines scholarship on the Vietnam War
On February 29, 2020, the History Department at Kent State University hosted a research symposium entitled, “The May 4th Event and New Directions in Scholarship on the Vietnam War.” The symposium, as organized by History professors Kevin Adams, Ann Heiss, and Shane Strate, had two objectives: First, to focus the attention of students and the local community on the tragedy of May 4th, while better situating those events within a global context. Second, the symposium provided a forum in which scholars from across North America could discuss their methodologies on the study of the Vietnam War. The two panels offered expertise on war and society, activism and dissent, consumerism, and Communist ideology.
The morning session was an exercise in reassessment, as each of the scholars questioned previous attitudes and conclusions regarding America’s role in Vietnam. In his presentation on the introduction of Mormonism to South Vietnam, Shane Strate (Kent State University) explained how LDS officers used military logistical resources, normally utilized to spread death and destruction, to establish and minister to a network of soldier-congregations. The first Vietnamese converts to Mormonism resulted from the patron-client relationships that characterized the U.S.-South Vietnamese alliance. Bob Brigham (Vassar College) spoke on the life of military photographer Bruce Allen Atwell, whose work on the Tet Offensive provide visual evidence of the embattled nature of America’s war effort. At the conclusion of his remarks, Brigham stunned the assembled audience by revealing his own recently discovered personal connection to Atwell. Christian Appy (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) examined the life of Daniel Ellsberg, the man responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers. After tracing Ellsberg’s journey from war hawk to anti-war activist, Appy posed an important question: What caused Americans to change their minds about the war? Finally, Meredith Lair (George Mason University), discussed how her visits to veteran’s museums caused her to change her own mind regarding the fear that soldiers experienced during the war and the trauma that resulted. With no other outlets for their war stories, Lair explained that Vietnam veterans constructed these museums, or “temples of referred pain,” in order to process that trauma.
In addition to examining the war from a Vietnamese perspective, the afternoon panel re-examined several of the binaries (South vs. North, nationalist vs. neo-imperialist, communist vs. democratic) that shape our understanding of the war. If the U.S. effort in SEA was predicated on the preservation of South Vietnam, it is worth posing the question: what kind of state did South Vietnam become? Jessica Chapman (Williams College) argued that the Saigon regime was an unsuccessful attempt to impose centralized political authority on a fundamentally de-centralized region. The inability of first the Viet Minh, and later the Diem governments, to bring local political actors into a national coalition created a factionalized society characterized by ongoing state violence. These failed attempts at political centralization had serious consequences, both for the U.S. nation-building effort of the 1960s and for human rights in South Vietnam. Heather Stur (University of Southern Mississippi) raised further questions about the non-democratic nature of the Saigon regime as she detailed the Thieu government’s use of violence against dissidents and activists. As the war dragged on, local activists attempted to bring attention to the use of tiger cages and other forms of torture against political dissidents. The ongoing abuse of human rights by the Saigon regime undermined US arguments that the war was fought on behalf of a democratic partner. Van Nguyen Marshall (University of Trent) shared her research on the diverse political and volunteer activities of Southern Vietnamese students and youth during the war. Many South Vietnamese students who protested against the war also opposed the NLF and its communist patrons. Turning to North Vietnam, Tuong Vu (University of Oregon) criticized the ‘myths’ promoted by Frances Fitzgerald and other American scholars that the Hanoi regime represented the latest generation of strong nationalists working to free the country from foreign rule since the Han dynasty. Instead, Vu argued, Communist leaders such as Le Duan were hard core ideologues who valued dogma over people and took greater pride in being the vanguard of the proletariat revolution than in achieving national liberation.
The symposium concluded with a plenary speech given by Tom Grace (Erie Community College), a former Kent State student and one of nine individuals who was wounded on May 4, 1970. In his remarks, Grace focused on the actions of the National Guard and the myths used to explain away their responsibility for the killings that ensued, even pointing out the parallels between the events at Kent State and recent police shootings that have received national attention. First, he addressed the misperception, promoted by the Nixon administration, that the Guardsmen were just kids, not much older than the students they confronted on campus. In reality, the average age of the guardsmen was twenty-seven, including several individuals with law enforcement training. Likewise, Grace’s research has helped dismantle a second narrative: that the Guardsmen believed their lives were in danger. Photographic evidence and oral testimony both confirmed that the students were unarmed and did not pose a serious threat. Finally, Grace attacked the notion of the shootings as an example of class privilege gone awry, that the students were somehow children of wealthy elites throwing rocks at the decent working-class young men of the national guard. Grace turns the notion of ‘privilege’ on its head by arguing that many of the students had friends or relatives serving in Vietnam, and some were veterans themselves. Meanwhile, a spot in the Ohio National Guard was a coveted position that allowed men to avoid the draft entirely.
The tragic events of May 4th, and the students who died on campus that day, demands that we continually assess our own country’s attitude towards political protest. Hopefully, these types of conferences can play a small role in re-examining whether the idea of an America tolerant of dissent has not also become a myth.